As Bulldog Hanover is poised to challenge his own world record today at the Red Mile, trainer and part-owner Jack Darling assesses the pacer’s place in history.
by Dave Briggs
If you don’t know Jack, you might take this the wrong way.
Ask Jack Darling the obvious question about where his otherworldly pacer ranks among the standardbred immortals and there is no bull about Bulldog Hanover, no hint of bravado from the man that — apart from caretaker Johnny Mallia — knows the 1:45.4 world champion pacer best.
Just the facts, Jack.
“It’s a different era. Niatross, how fast did he go? :49.1. Cam Fella was going :52 or :53. So, they really were the best in their era, but I really, truly, believe at this stage, today, (Bulldog Hanover is) the best horse that’s ever lived up to now,” Darling said quietly, matter-of-factly. “That’s nothing against Somebeachsomewhere, but horses are just getting better and better. I really believe that no horse could ever beat him today the way he’s racing.”
Darling has the statistics on his side.
“Somebody gave me the stat that there’s been 15 horses that have paced better than :47, but none of them have done it twice,” Darling said. “He’s done it five times. He would do it every time, if he had fast tracks. That’s how fast he goes.
“A lot of horses can pace a quarter in :25-and-change, but it’s the lung capacity to do that maybe four times in a row. Can you go a quarter in :26 four times in a row? This horse gives you the impression that he could do something like that, because… recently, he hasn’t been tired at the wire.
“He has superior constitution. He never gets sick. I don’t think he’s been sick a day in his life… He doesn’t get tired. He’s never missed a meal.
“A lot of people say he’s the greatest horse they’ve ever seen.
“Ron Pierce said the other day that he’s never seen a horse that could beat him or come close to him.”
Pierce’s fellow Hall of Famer Ronnie Burke may not go that far, but the trainer certainly is baffled about how to best Bulldog.
“Last week, I said, ‘To hell with this kind of laying down for him. We’re going to race him,’” Burke told HRU’s Heather Vitale this week. “We sent our horses out of there. And then after the owners were like, ‘Well, maybe if we raced this way we could have…’ I said, ‘Yeah, we would have got beat by four instead of five.’ You know, he’s just better than us right now. We kept him out on the outside. We had him three deep into a cornfield, and he won by six or whatever under grips running off up the backside. Right now, there’s not an answer for him. I thought maybe if you stretched him and put them in a bad spot, didn’t matter. He could have started from the parking lot he was beating us. I really thought Workin Ona Mystery was going to have a great year this year and he probably would have except for Bulldog Hanover. I mean, he’s on a once-in-a-lifetime run right now. I’ve always said Somebeachsomewhere is the best horse I ever saw. Not close. It’s getting close.”
The fact Bulldog is already in the discussion with Niatross and Cam Fella and The Beach before the 4-year-old Darling owns with Brad Grant takes to the Red Mile’s lightning red clay this afternoon for one of the most anticipated starts in many moons in the harness game, tells you something about the year he’s had demolishing older horses week after week.
Could Bulldog Hanover lower his own world record today in the $153,000 Allerage open pace (Race 11)? Check that. Are Darling and driver Dexter Dunn even trying?
“We’re just here to give him a chance. We’d be here no matter what, but it’s been on our mind that this is going to be the place if he can go faster,” Darling said.
Mallia just wants people to be reasonable. Bulldog Hanover is the first standardbred in history to go faster than 1:46 and he did it by one-fifth-of-a-second.
“There’s a lot of pressure on this race,” he told HRU’s James Platz. “Everybody has these crazy expectations, like he’s going to go in :44. I’m like, ‘Do you know how fast a horse has to go for :44?’ He broke the record by a fifth-of-a-second. They don’t go seconds, they go fifths-of-a-second.”
FANS BASE IS GROWING, EMOTIONS ARE BUILDING
As Bulldog Hanover continues to put up scintillating mile after mile, Darling has felt the emotions build — both for himself and harness racing fans.
“With Bulldog, it’s an emotional thing. So many people come up to me and congratulate me and talk about Bulldog. Their admiration for that horse is so sincere and the look on their faces and in their eyes, it’s so genuine and it’s really touching. It’s pretty special,” Darling said.
In Dayton last weekend, Darling said there was a “constant stream of people” coming to the paddock to see the horse.
“They were just fans from Ohio and they just wanted to see that horse and wanted to ask questions about him, get their pictures taken with him. They just wanted to touch him. It was so genuine,” he said.
This week in Lexington, it’s been about the media, so far. On Wednesday, mere hours before Darling found out he will be inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, he and Bulldog feted the USTA team.
“We were bombarded. Wendy Ross was there all morning. They did a heck of a show. We were out jogging and she was on the jogger. DeWayne Minor, he was jogging beside me and she’s taking pictures and we’ve got the mics on and talking. Then, there were three photographers from USTA standing there. They took so many pictures.
“They had a drone going around today, too. That wasn’t bothering him. At one point, it came down really close and it scared the hell out of the horse beside him, but Bulldog just looked at it. I thought he was going to try to knock it out of the sky.”
Thursday morning, a slew of harness racing paparazzi arrived at the Red Mile to record Darling training Bulldog Hanover.
Darling said Bulldog loves the attention.
“When I’m jogging him, it almost brings a tear to your eye. He’s so special. He’s like a rockstar. He’s so classy and you can just feel it and see it,” Darling said.
“He’s the horse of a lifetime.”
Darling’s wife, Ann, is seated beside him. She smiles when asked what it’s like to see Jack have such an incredible horse near the end of his career.
“It’s all for him,” Ann said of Jack, who counters that Ann is Bulldog’s biggest fan.
“She gets emotional, too,” he said.
Today, the Darlings’ two young grandchildren — 6 and 6 months — will be at the Red Mile to see if the horse the 6-year-old calls “Bullgone Hanover” can make more history with just a few starts left before he becomes a full-time stallion at Seelster Farms in Lucan, ON.
After today’s race, Bulldog Hanover will race in the Breeders Crown at the end of October at his home track Woodbine Mohawk Park, then have a break and close it all out in the TVG at The Meadowlands where he set his 1:45.4 world record on July 16.
“Apparently, there’s some kind of an invitation race at Rosecroft the week before TVG, so that’s a possibility because he’s going to need a race before that,” Darling said. “There’s also a $600,000 race at Yonkers the week before Breeders Crown, but I’m not going to take him to that. He could go on a half, but he would need some practice. Just to take him there and hit those turns as fast as he goes, I couldn’t take a chance.”
When Bulldog Hanover does start for the final time, Darling said it will be a tough and sad day.
“The plan is to retire him and it’s pretty hard not to, but the door is never closed until it’s closed,” he said.
It’s not about the money at this point, the trainer said. After all, this year Bulldog Hanover bred his first crop of mares before returning to the track. He could do that again if it could be worked out with his syndicate.
“It’s a shame for a horse like that to not be racing. If he could continue on like he’s doing now, you’d be leaving that on the table. And the fans love it, they come out to watch him… so there is that small part of me…”
Darling pauses. He’s hedging “just a sliver, maybe two per cent” because he’s just like the rest of us.
He doesn’t want to see the ride come to an end.